There’s so little in the world, at this point, that isn’t constantly being examined. Everything merits a hot take, a compendium of responses about what is or isn’t racist, or culturally insensitive, or sexist, or homophobic. No part of our culture is spared: Movies, television, and music all get this kind of treatment, from the second they’re announced to the very tips of their news cycles.
And yet, there’s one particular band that, for the last 21 years, hasn’t been examined this way. Somehow, we let it slide without considering the ramifications of its art, of its influence on the world and in particular, its influence on Canadian culture. Though it can be exhausting, oftentimes overkill, to scrutinize art and culture in this way, there’s a reason we do it.
I am a feminist. You probably know that, because I am woman and I have a jean jacket that has a button on it that says “feminist.” As a feminist, it is my job to consider every single feminist aspect of literally anything in the history of men making things and women having to deal with their hot loads of cultural bullshit. Most feminist know this, but: If women aren’t constantly checking in to make sure that every part of the world is feminist, then men will win and we will be paid less than them.
So it’s surprising to me that no one is safe from this constant examination, except Canada’s greatest national export: Nickelback. Has there ever been a band so universally liked, so deeply respected, played on repeat in so many restaurants and coffee shops and bars to the delight of its patrons quite like Nickelback? Canadians are generally willing and capable of having long and robust arguments about the social and cultural impact of art, and yet, Nickelback is so universally adored that it’s never been under a microscope. No one has ever had the audacity to take them on.
You might think that Nickelback is not feminist because on the surface, they promote a clear male-centric agenda. Even their name is a reference to cis men (the nickelback is another term for the underside of testicle). But I’ve actually taken the time to think about whether this band is feminist, and I’m confident in my assertion that not only are they feminist, but they’re super feminist. Like, Hillary Clinton feminist. Lorde and Taylor Swift on a boat drinking beers out of the bottle feminist. Going up to a man on the street and saying, “NO. THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. GET YOUR FINGER OUT OF MY FACE” feminist.
Feminism is easy if you’re smart and a feminist, like me.
Let’s take, for example, their song “Figured You Out.” It’s one of my favourite songs, and on the surface, it can be hard to defend (like so much popular music that uses women as a punchline). Still, if you read between the lines—as I so frequently do, because I am a feminist—I think you’ll find that there’s much more social consciousness in this song.
1. “I like your pants around your feet,” it begins. What a sex-positive message! Women are free to wear whatever they want and should receive no consequences for it.
2. “And I like the dirt that’s on your knees.” Did you think that men are the only sex capable of manual labour? NOT SO, SEXIST. Girls can garden and shit or whatever too! This song proves that.
3. “And I like the way you still say please,” it continues. Feminism is about politeness. Just because I’m a feminist doesn’t mean I hate men, you know, so it’s important to be nice. For example, when you’re asking for equality in pay, sometimes you just have to say it with a simple please. Some women just don’t understand that.
4. “...while you’re looking up at me.” Yeah, hard to find another meaning for this little nugget, isn’t there.
5. “You’re like my favorite damn disease.” Much like how much I love endometriosis, because I am a woman, and as a woman, I love all the things that attack my body.
Lead singer Chad Kroeger in particular has always been a feminist, evidenced by the fact that he was once married to Avril Lavigne—a woman—so obviously he believes in women. You’d be surprised by how many men don’t think women are a real thing. I am personally really impressed by Chad’s bravery in believing that women exist.
The other guys have also always been feminists, but I don’t have any examples for them, because nothing has ever been written about them. You must be thinking, “There are other guys in Nickelback?” Indeed! There’s the one with the soul patch that looks like a snail got lost on his face, the other guy who has a neck, and the third guy with both a soul patch and a neck.
Writing is easy if you are smart and a feminist, like me.
But ultimately, I wouldn’t be able to assert that Nickelback is absolutely feminist without consulting a man, because no one knows male feminism better than men. Male Rock Music Expert/Virgin, Jordan Ginsberg, has been studying bands like Nickelback, Creed, The Velvet Underneath, as well as all three of Eddie Vetter’s bands, Audio Slave, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana.
Ginsberg teaches a class about Nickelback at the University of Toronto, and this semester, his focus has been primarily on the Nickelback song, “Photograph.” He invited me to his home office for the interview, a cozy little two-bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto. He’s converted one room into his office, replete with Nickelback posters and vinyls, his desk strewn with frantic notes about Chad’s shorter hair.
If you look at the first few lines of the song (“Look at this photograph/ Every time I do it makes me laugh/ How did our eyes get so red?/ And what the hell is on Joey’s head?”) you’ll notice some key feminist stances. “The role of Joey is essential here, and quietly progressive,” Ginsberg said, handing me a scotch. (Women can drink scotch!!!!)
“‘Joey’ could fall anywhere on the gender-identity spectrum, yet at no point does Kroeger feel the need to specify and thereby cast them into any sort of traditional or expected role.” This is such an interesting thought, and from a man no less. I am always amazed when I find a man who is a feminist because it’s so hard to be one.
Later in the same song, the lyrics tell a story about Chad’s first kiss: “Kim’s the first girl I kissed/ I was so nervous that I nearly missed/ She’s had a couple of kids since then/ I haven’t seen her since god knows when.”
Ginsberg suggests that Kim is a powerful woman, who led Kroeger through an experience and then never felt the need to continue speaking to him. “If this is not an openly feminist song, then maybe I just don’t know anything about feminism,” Ginsberg continues. “Of course, as a male feminist, I both take issue with such an assertion but remain committed to trying to understand why you might feel that way.”
Wow, what an amazing male feminist. He definitely deserves sex from a human woman, as all male feminists do.
Still, Ginsberg stops short at calling Nickelback the most feminist band of all time. “Every band is equally feminist. Nickelback? Neil Young? The Barenaked Ladies? The Tragically Hip? Our Lady Peace? What’s the common denominator?” I said I wasn’t sure because I haven’t heard of those other bands.
“All of them are composed of artists—those of us who work tirelessly to bring our creativity out of the bedroom and into the world at large,” he said. “Tell me that’s not feminist action.”
I nodded but Ginsberg took another few steps towards me. “I know you’re thinking it,” he continued, “and you’re wrong. God, you are so fucking wrong.”
Ginsberg continued as I slowly backed out of his office. “Are you busy later?” He called after me as I fussed with the lock on his front door. “I’ve got a table reserved. Please let me tell you how wrong you are.”
Later when I got home, I couldn’t help but wonder why the rest of the world so often dismissed Nickelback as the feminist icon of our generation, nevermind the feminist icon of all of Canada. Maybe it’s because men are so often dismissed as the voices for women, or maybe it’s because people assume that a band from Hanna can’t change the world.
But at least us feminists know that if we ever need a guiding light, a shepherd in this chaotic world to lead us back to social justice, we can always put on a Nickelback song and remember:
“This is how you remind me of what I really am.”